Berlioz; Tchaikovsky; Schumann

The Orchestra of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society filled Big School recently with an attractive programme consisting of music by two masters of the modern orchestra, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky, together with that most romantic of all piano concertos, Schumann in A minor.

Hanlie Martens was the soloist, making a very welcome return to the town; the orchestral leader was Penelope Howard and the conductor was her husband, Robin Morrish, the Society’s musical director.

In the ‘King Lear’ overture by Berlioz cellos and double basses filled the hall with warm, rich sound in their angry opening statement, drawing a beautiful response from Nancy Sargeant’s solo oboe in the so-called ‘Cordelia’ theme. Some lack of intonation from the attenuated upper strings (and it was a very cold evening!) was overcome, and the remaining episodes of this rarely performed piece, with its sudden melodic thrusts and dramatic outbursts, were in turn revealed by Robin Morrish to great effect.

From the opening flourish of the Schumann concerto it was clear that with Hanlie Martens at the Bosendorfer keyboard we were in very safe hands indeed. She gave a beautifully balanced performance that revealed her understanding of the inner secret of this most poetic work: that the piano part is so skilfully interwoven with that of the orchestra it is impossible to think of one without the other. Indeed, at one of those points where the orchestra gives way to the piano, allowing the solo instrument to weave a series of delicate arabesques, I spotted Robin Morrish actually conducting Hanlie Martens – an uncharacteristic but entirely forgivable lapse! Such was the closeness of the partnership in this most satisfying performance, which conveyed the excitement and thrill of Schumann’s virtuosity without any loss of his magically poetic inspiration.

All sections of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Orchestra seized their opportunity to shine in the major work of the evening, the fifth symphony of Tchaikovsky, a composer much influenced by Berlioz, whose work he greatly admired, and some of whose orchestral effects can be no less terrifying to listen to and to perform. The dark, brooding melancholy of the opening theme, which in various guises dominates the entire work, caught the mood completely, the brass stabbed away relentlessly and the strings responded with a conviction that carried the music forward under Robin Morrish’s clear and powerful direction.

Jackie Sanjana handled the legendary horn solo in the andante cantabile with great aplomb and sensitivity. The lilting Waltz reminded us how close Tchaikovsky always is to dance and ballet, while the notorious time-shift in the Finale was negotiated with truly professional skill.

As this powerful and rewarding performance came to its end Robin Morrish waved his conductor’s score aloft to acknowledge the enthusiastic applause. As well he might, for the occasion was a triumph for him, a triumph for the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society and a triumph for Tchaikovsky.

Robert Hardcastle